Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 5, Dona Nobis Pacem
“Vaughan Williams may not have been a great technical conductor, but he knew how his music should sound”. The words are those of RVW’s friend and biographer, the distinguished critic, Michael Kennedy. I suggest that anyone hearing this revelatory CD would be bound to agree with that verdict.
Because Vaughan Williams was not thought to be a great conductor he was rarely invited to record his own music. This is in stark contrast to, say, Elgar, Walton or Britten, all of whom recorded their own music extensively. Yet the evidence of that boiling, incandescent recording of his Fourth Symphony that RVW set down with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 11 October 1937 shows that he was a vivid communicator of his own works (Dutton CDAX 8011). That’s long been a prized part of my own collection, as has the recording of Dona Nobis Pacem, in an earlier transfer, but I never thought we’d uncover a recording of him conducting what is perhaps his finest symphony.
This performance of the Fifth comes from the 1952 Henry Wood Promenade concerts at which all six of the symphonies that RVW had written to date were played in honour of his forthcoming eightieth birthday. It’s worth remembering that the symphony had been premièred at the Proms just nine years earlier, also under the composer’s baton. According to Alan Sanders’ very interesting note the broadcast was recorded off-air onto a long-playing acetate disc by an engineer named Eric Spain. The results are quite remarkable. To be sure, there is some surface noise but it is never intrusive and a remarkable amount of detail and perspective has been captured. There seems to have been no attempt made to edit out the audience noise between movements and this adds to the sense that we are eavesdropping on an event. However, no applause is retained at the end and while I usually like to hear some applause at the end of a live recording – a minority view, I suspect – on this occasion I don’t mind.
As to the performance, well it’s a very fine one. There are a few orchestral fluffs but nothing too serious. Vaughan Williams gives a reading that is direct and unfussy but one that also conveys admirably the wonderful poetry of this radiant symphony. The first movement proceeds serenely yet it has a quiet inner strength. When the music quickens (at 5:11) RVW obtains lightness from the strings but the melody in the wind and brass has a hint of darkness. When the climax of the movement arrives (8:10) it has an unforced majesty.
Much of the music of the second movement is characterised by what I’d term a rugged, rustic lightness. In places it suggests to me the ‘Rude Mechanicals’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are some occasional frailties in the playing but generally speaking the BBCSO responds well, giving a delightful account of the piece. At the very end the music dissolves up into the ether.
How moving it is to hear Vaughan Williams direct the glorious slow movement, containing as it does so much music from Pilgrim’s Progress, the visionary work that had occupied him for so many years. He achieves a real hushed intensity at the very start and there’s a lovely cor anglais solo. This ravishing movement shows Vaughan Williams’s lyrical gifts at their peak. Everything about this reading seems so right and he builds up to a glowing climax before allowing the music to die away in peaceful tranquillity.
The finale is a joyful movement and it comes across as such in its creator’s hands. There’s a real sense of hope in this music, despite its genesis in the dark days of war and RVW puts that across effortlessly. The gentle benediction of the coda is handled sensitively and with satisfying simplicity. The composer said of his Fourth symphony that it was what he “meant” and I think that’s true also of this deeply satisfying performance of the Fifth.
It used to be thought by some commentators, mistakenly but understandably, that the Fourth symphony was a depiction of the gathering political storms in Europe in the 1930s. In fact the cantata Dona Nobis Pacem is, surely, a much more direct artistic response to those menacing times and it’s amazing to find that Vaughan Williams, having produced such a searing work in the run-up to the Second World War, then penned a pacific work like the Fifth symphony while the conflict was at its height.
The performance of Dona Nobis Pacem presented here was given just a month after the work received its first performance from the Huddersfield Choral Society under Albert Coates. When Vaughan Williams came to broadcast it for the BBC he had the services of the same two soloists who had taken part in the première. This performance has appeared on CD before (Pearl GEMM CD9342) but this present release is claimed as its first authorised release. Presumably the source for this Somm issue is the BBC itself for Alan Sanders comments that this “is one of the Corporation’s few pre-war music recordings to have survived”. The Pearl booklet states that the source for their issue is “a private acetate transcription”.
I can state unequivocally that an A/B comparison shows that this Somm transfer completely supersedes the Pearl effort. The Somm disc is brighter, clearer and has an almost visceral impact compared with the Pearl. Not only that, the new transfer reports much more detail in both the loud and soft passages. Indeed, following with a vocal score I was amazed at how much inner detail is revealed – for example in the third section where the choir divides into eight parts, singing quietly and unaccompanied (cue 14 in the vocal score). It is simply staggering how vividly this recording speaks to us more than seventy years after it was made.
And the performance is vivid too. In the first movement Renée Flynn’s voice is caught with real presence – as is the case throughout the performance – and she sings marvellously. When the orchestra and chorus enter Vaughan Williams obtains some impassioned results. The second movement is a setting of RVW’s beloved Walt Whitman, as are the third and fourth movements. “Beat! beat! drums!” the choir sings. It’s a frenzied movement and Vaughan Williams whips up a real storm. The brass and percussion sound really vivid. The chorus parts are not easy, as I know from personal experience, but the BBC Chorus acquits itself valiantly. They’re rhythmically accurate – no mean feat in itself, especially in unfamiliar music - and the composer inspires them to singing of genuine fervour.
The third movement, ‘Reconciliation’, is at the centre of the work in more ways than one. Roy Henderson is a most dignified and moving soloist. Here there’s further evidence of Vaughan Williams’s conducting skill, for examples of subtle rubato abounds in his account of this movement and this could not have been achieved by someone who didn’t know what they were doing on the podium. It’s a most beautiful movement and the performers rise to great eloquence, none more so than Henderson, especially as he sings of the soldier finding his enemy’s corpse in its coffin. Whitman is, for my taste, somewhat mawkish here but Vaughan Williams in his music and Henderson in his singing transcend that.
The third and final Whitman setting is the celebrated ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’. There’s great cumulative power in the march that forms the basis of much of this movement. Vaughan Williams builds the tension purposefully and with skill and patience. The huge climax at “I hear the great drums pounding” is powerfully achieved as is the potent passage for orchestra alone a few pages later (5:09). The text is portentous at times, as Whitman so often is, but Vaughan Williams’s music has strength and conviction and this enables him to avoid sentimentality.
The fifth movement opens with a masterstroke. Over the sparest of accompaniments the baritone soloist sings lines from the celebrated speech made in the House of Commons by the radical MP, John Bright (1811-1889), in opposition to the Crimean War on 23 February 1855: “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land.” Here Henderson’s hushed singing is hypnotically powerful. He’s quite chilling without any theatricality and he generates a tremendous atmosphere before the choral outburst, “Dona nobis pacem”. The movement ends on a more hopeful note with a chorus that, to me, anticipates the concluding pages of the Christmas work, Hodie (1954). Despite all the trials and tribulations of the 1930s Vaughan Williams could retain a sense of hope, if not optimism.
Dona Nobis Pacem is in many ways a work of its time but, in the sentiments that it expresses, it’s surely a work for our times also. It’s sincere and impassioned and a very fine piece. I’m surprised and disappointed that it’s not heard more often. It’s both moving and exciting to hear it under the composer’s own direction at a time when it was so new and also at a time when it was so relevant to the events that had moved him to write it. In this excellent new transfer the performance comes vividly to life. As I listened I found myself wondering how many of the performers may subsequently have become victims of the war that was not then far off.
In this year (2008) that marks the fiftieth anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death I hope there will be many fine performances, broadcasts and recordings to celebrate his life and music. The year has started auspiciously with Tony Palmer’s wonderful new film biography, O Thou Transcendent. However, this superb release from Somm may turn out to be the most invaluable of all the anniversary tributes. It’s a mandatory purchase for all lovers of Vaughan Williams’s music and, frankly, a priceless document.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: SOMMCD 071
Label: SOMM Recordings
Composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams
Conductor: Ralph Vaughan Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble: BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra
Performer: Renée Flynn, Roy Henderson